Friday, January 22, 2010

Book Two in the Abruzzo Trilogy: Bread and Wine, with a Nearly Unforgivable Amount of Digressions

In the house I grew up in there were at least two copies of Bread and Wine. One of them was the old Penguin paperback with the George Salter cover: spooky black gauntlet materializing from inky black clouds – this would be Fascism – to blot out the sun, which is fixed in a blood-red sky that morphs into a band of blue at the bottom, over the suspiciously verdant hills of poverty-stricken Abruzzo. A strange combination of the abstract and the literal (like so many of Salter’s wonderful covers). What with all of this confusingly medieval-looking imagery and Salter’s spiky, churchy calligraphy, when I looked at the book as a kid it had such serious Catholic residue that I had no desire to read it. When I found out it was about a guy who dresses up like a priest – ma che cazzo? – I was severely, severely uninterested in reading it. Eventually, I turned twelve.

And years later I finally read the book. I had a job as a personal assistant at the time, in a townhouse on the Upper East Sid
e that had been half-heartedly converted into the Manhattan “vanity” office of a family-run mega-business. There were three of us in this office, all women, and each of us had been hired not to do any work for the mega-business but to be the personal assistant/oppressed nose wiper to one of the three guys in the sad, womanless family who owned the business. There was the father, who was probably in his late sixties at the time, and two grown sons in their thirties; one of the sons was the “difficult” son and the other was the “nice” one and I, of course, was the assistant to the difficult one, whom I’ll call Pete. Pete would roll into the office late in the morning, snorting away (literally; I think he had a deviated septum) in his slacker-college-with-crazily-high-tuition tee-shirt and single, eternal pair of ripped jeans, having driven all the way uptown merely, it would seem, to find niggling little things to blacken my day with. One time he went through a copy of the New Yorker and circled about forty of those odd, small ads they have near the back for things like cat figurines, hats for women with hair loss, and personalized Egyptian cartouches, and asked me to write in for catalogs. The other brother, the Eco Dude, lived in some bosky New England village and would call in every other day or so to ask my co-worker to go upstairs (we were in a duplex) and water his spider plant. The father, whom I’ll call Harry, was a strange, gruff, addled, and surprisingly large man who very often lost his car or missed rendezvous with his aged lady friend (which meant she’d call us in a panic – I can still remember the sound of her husky old-money voice shouting into the phone: Mary, I’ve lost Harry!). In one particularly extraordinary incident, we got a frantic call from the Yale Club because Harry was wandering around the lobby without his pants on.

Have I mentioned that these people were worth millions? Anyway. I was driving a soup van once a week for the Coalition for the Homeless at the time, and one of the stops was in Central Park, by Bethesda Terrace. There was a pretty reliable group of homeless people who came to the soup van at that stop; one guy in particular stood out because he was very big, Russian, and had flippy Roman Polanski-style hair. He also had a dinky windbreaker that was too small for him and, as the weeks went on and it got colder, it dawned on me that Harry and the guy were about the same size. Why couldn’t I ask nice, rich, weird old Harry if he had an old coat to give the Russian man? So the next day at work, when Harry called in (he was forever calling in rather than coming to the office), I told him all about the Russian man who lived in Central Park and needed a coat. He said to me, Mary, I’ll see what I can do; and I hung up the phone in the warm, self-impressed glow of my own thoughtfulness. Three days later he called back and said: Mary, about the coat – I don’t have one. And then he banged the phone down. And I remember sitting there looking at the receiver and thinking: You don’t have one? You don’t have one? Well then why don’t you go BUY this guy a coat, you fat bastard? Like a lot of mad-rich people I’ve met, these folks were tight as new shoes.

So, was there a point here? Yes! This was the era in which I finally read Bread and Wine, and the contrast between the petty reality of my personal assistant job in sick-rich ’90s Manhattan and the do-or-die moments of an anti-Fascist in Mussolini’s Italy could not have been greater (although they did share a certain tenor of waste and absurdity). Bread and Wine is the story of a Pietro Spina, an ailing, hunted Communist leader and “idealized version of Silone” (as Alexander Stille calls him), who returns from exile abroad to his native Abruzzi, where he is sent by his party to hide out in a small village disguised as a priest, and is given the name Paolo Spada. His attempts at organizing a peasant rebellion can only fall flat – these are, after all, the resigned cafoni met earlier in Fontamara (although the ironic tone of the narration is pretty well gone). Instead, Spina in his guise as Don Paolo ends up “entering into the intimate life of the village and acting as a source of comfort in the lives of the peasants” (Stille again). As Irving Howe wrote in his terrific introduction to the Signet Classic edition, the strength of the book is in connecting Silone’s “two encompassing visions, socialism and Christianity…not as abstract or inert intellectual systems but as elements of a vibrant experience. Spina, and behind him Silone, is obsessed with the problem, how can a decent person act in a terrible time?”
One of the last images of the book is of Spina/Spada, just before he learns that he must flee Pietrasecca, wearing an “ordinary felt hat…that could equally well be adapted to ecclesiastical or lay purposes, depending how it was shaped or worn.”

Years have not dulled the power of this book. There are great things in it. Just after Spina has donned his priest’s costume, as he is waiting for his ride up the mountain to Pietrasecca, the owner of his hotel corners him and – excruciatingly, and against his many protestations – packs him off to give last rites to her daughter. The girl has given herself an abortion and is dying alone in a bedroom upstairs, and the mother cannot call a doctor nor the parish priest, “because he’s a relative.” The fake priest, prickly, ailing, and neurasthenic, is tricked into going into the girl’s room, and abruptly left alone with her there:

He stayed at the door, rooted to the spot. Several minutes passed like that. He was about to tiptoe out again, but he was stopped by the dying girl’s big, wide-open eyes. How was he to explain to a human being on the point of death that he was not like other priests? He was utterly at a loss, he was paralyzed. The dying girl went on looking at him with her big, feverish eyes.

"Courage,” he said, trying to produce a smile.

And what follows is a beautiful scene, not two pages long, in which the fake priest gives the young woman a very real absolution. “Don’t be afraid,” he says to her before parting, “you are forgiven. What will not be forgiven is this evil society that gave you the choice between death and dishonor.” The scene is saved from sentimentality by Don Paolo’s nervous, neurotic discomfort (a trait of his that runs through much of the book): Spina/Spada is in many ways an unlikely hero. He is a bundle of raw emotions – quick to laugh and to cry, easily disgusted, suddenly and violently gloomy. On this rereading I realized that who he reminds me of more than anything is Dante in his journey through Inferno, forever cringing, freaking out, hiding in Virgil’s skirts, or swooning like a lass. It’s an unlikely representation of masculinity, and all the more effecting because of its rareness.

To top it all off, Don Paolo hates spaghetti.

He also has little love at first for the miserable backwater that is Pietrasecca (which of course translates as “dry stone”). Much of the book is made up of his observations of the superstitious, illogical, hidebound, near-consistently ridiculous locals. In time he meets Cristina, the beautiful and soulful daughter of the local aristocratic family, who wants to take the veil but is prevented because her family needs her at home. They enter into a passionate, chaste friendship, and Pietro passes time filling up a notebook with their conversations. But Pietro is, after all, only there to convalesce so he can get back to his activism – plus, since he’s disguised as a priest his actions are necessarily limited (and it’s his nature to be moody and discontent) – and we watch him go through various longueurs in the tiny town. At some point, having quarreled with Cristina, tired of being surrounded by women, and expecting to be called back to Rome to have “some serious discussions with the party,” he seeks out the company of the men of the village. Soon, in a group of locals he encounters a young man “with a rather strange appearance…. A big tuft of hair on his forehead gave him a wild look that contrasted with his eyes, which were those of a tame dog. He took no part in his companions’ jokes and sallies. Don Paolo smiled at him, and he smiled back and moved closer to him.” Encouraged by his seeming intelligence, Don Paolo accompanies the young man to his home, which is “rather like a pigsty” and talks and talks to him about the Russian Revolution. The young man quietly prepares a humble dinner and shares it with the priest (Don Paolo chokes it down “to avoid offending him”). In time the priest’s landlady, Matalena, who thinks his presence in her house will save her from catastrophe and so likes to keep her priest on a tight leash, tracks him down:

"Your dinner has been ready for an hour," she said. "I was afraid something happened to you."

"I’m not hungry,” said Don Paolo. “Go back to the inn, because I want to go on talking to this friend of mine.”

“Talking to him?” Matalena exclaimed. “But haven’t you noticed that the poor lad is a deaf-mute and he only understands a few signs?”

It’s a great scene, funny and then unexpectedly moving. After being given this information Don Paolo falls silent, but is not embarrassed; instead, he remains there with the deaf-mute man: “Every so often they looked at each other and smiled.” Eventually the priest gets up, shakes hands with the fellow and wishes him good night. When he leaves, he has to “grope in the dark like a blind man”: the blind leading the deaf, and an apt metaphor for Don Paolo’s attempt to rally the cafoni to rebellion. But the scene can also be seen a metaphor for compassion: for those he feels drawn to, Don Paolo will become a sponge of empathy, taking on their wounds and impairments as his own.

There is a justly celebrated, amusing/depressing scene, in which the village schoolteacher (a woman, and much maligned for being so) is reading the Fascist broadside News from Rome to “about thirty ragged individuals” in the local bar; Magascià, the superstitious, one-armed peasant who drove Don Paolo up the hill, is among them. The distance between the inflated rhetoric of the paper and the locals’ understanding of the world could not be greater:

“We have a leader for whom all the nations of the earth envy us,” she read.
“Who knows what they would be prepared to pay to have him in their country…”

Magascià interrupted. As he disliked generalities, he wanted to know exactly how much other nations would be willing to pay to acquire our leader.

“It’s a manner of speaking,” said the schoolmistress.

"There’s no such thing as manners of speaking in commercial contracts,” Magascià objected. “Are they willing to pay for him or not? If they are willing to pay, what are they offering?”

The schoolmistress repeated angrily that it was merely a manner of speaking.

“So it isn’t true that they want to buy him, then?” Magascià said. “And if it isn’t true, why does it say that they want him?”

Sciatàp also wanted some specific information. Would it be a cash or credit transaction?

And the scene goes on and on like that, glacially, ad absurdum. Later in the book, on the day the war in Abyssinia is declared, Fossa (the larger town down the hill from Pietrasecca) has erupted in celebration. Tricolor rosettes are being passed around, bells are rung. This is all very depressing to Don Paolo, who visits the house of the local lawyer, Marco Tullio Zabaglia (amusingly called “Zabaglione,” like the custard). Zabaglia is a conflicted individual, a former Socialist trying to cover his tracks, as well as a bit of a blowhard. He professes to lamenting having only daughters, not sons who can join in the glory of war; more than this, he is annoyed with not having been chosen as the official speaker, nor even getting the chance to introduce the man, who was to be talking about “The Revival of the Rural Masse
s and the Roman Tradition.” Don Paolo cuts him off, saying the idea of any kind of Roman tradition having sway over the cafoni is ridiculous. The lawyer agrees with him:

“You’re quite right,” he said. “It’s absurd to talk about the Roman Tradition at the present time. Our tradition goes no further back than the Bourbons and the Spaniards, against a background of Christian legends. Besides, even in Roman times there was no Roman influence here. The people here differed from the Latins in religion, language, alphabet, and customs.”

Italy had been unified for less than 75 years at the time this scene is taking place. While Rome was “real” to the Abruzzesi (it was after all only a train ride away) in a way that say, Russia, was not, on a fundamental level it had nothing to “do” with them. It extracted fees, laid down dicta, oppressed and ordered them around from afar. Even today, when you can go to a religious procession for the Madonna della Mazza in the tiny Abruzzese town of Pretoro, population 1,100, and see the Hello Kitty backpacks and other colorful evidence of a global economy on the teenagers carrying the Madonna up the hill – remind me to find those photos – there is still a feeling of intense, intense regionalism. You see many representations of this in films that take place in the Italian south, where the locals clearly resent the power and oppression of the rule from
Rome. The question they always ask the interloper with the official papers or the official uniform is this: “You’re not from here, are you?” See, for example, La Siciliana Ribelle and Respiro – films that go a long way towards dispelling the one-dimensional notion of Sunny Italy.

Like Fontamara, Bread and Wine was written while Silone was in exile in Switzerland, at a time when Mussolini was still being praised around the world as the guy who made the trains run on time. As if to adhere to the letter of some kind of international libel law (?), not once does Silone mention Mussolini by name in the book. During the celebration on the day the war on Abyssinia is declared, a loudspeaker is set up so that a radio speech can be broadcast – Mussolini, of course, will be the speaker – but as soon as the “first hoarse muttering” is heard, a shout rises up from the crowd:


Silone has of course just flipped the syllables of Duce, something that might not be immediately apparent unless one says it out loud (much like the urban-legend name – if one pronounces the surname American-style – of poor Nancy Ann Cianci, sometimes said to be the wife, sometimes the daughter, of the convicted racketeer ex-Mayor of Providence, Rhode Island, “Buddy” Cianci [I just looked up this shameless man online and all I can say is thank goodness he finally ditched the toupee]). The ridiculousness of the Duce scene only grows when the radio broadcast ends, completely unheard, the locals having chanted over the entirety of it.

Just before this section are several chapters in which Spina is in Rome, having been obscurely summoned there by the organization. It’s a terrible visit for him; others from the Abruzzi in the organization have been caught and tortured in the infamous Regina Coeli prison, one has cut with the organization and suddenly become religious. When Spina meets with another party operative, he gets into an argument over the condemnation of Bukharin – this is around the time of the Moscow show trials – and is threatened with expulsion from the party. In the saddest scene, Pietro meets up with an old friend from his Communist student cell days, Uliva, and finds him much changed – disillusioned, embittered, living in squalor; he can’t even go back to his village in Chieti (Abruzzo again) because his relatives have banished him. Like Pietro, Uliva is a provincial with the education and politics of a cosmopolitan, and he doesn’t fit in anywhere; but unlike Pietro, he has given up hope. Shortly after this meeting, Pietro learns that Uliva’s flat has blown up, killing him and his pregnant wife. The bomb had been meant for a church “during a service to be attended by the whole government.” Uliva had crossed the line to despair and nihilism.

Back in Pietrasecca, worn out by his adventures – which had gone on to include some late-night anti-war graffiti-writing in the streets of Fossa; a meeting with the beloved priest of his youth; and, most important, Pietro’s revealing of his true identity to a fellow Communist, Luigi Murica, who had crossed over and become a police informer (something to be discussed in another posting) – Spina/Spada relapses “into a state of extreme weakness.” His landlady Matalena sends Magascià to his room to receive Last Rites, something Don Paolo had avoided, pleading illness, despite Matalena’s earlier nagging. After absent-mindedly listening to the man (who had committed a murder many years earlier) the Don sends him away with a “You may go.”
After this, the news that the Don has received permission to hear confession “spread like wildfire,” and he is mobbed in his little room by cafoni eager to confess. Again, this could have gone on to become a teary, “heart-warming” passage – here he is, not a real priest at all, absolving people – but his absolutions are abstract and, by not judging people (either out of annoyance or embarrassment), he allows them to come away with their own notions of forgiveness. Eventually his irritation and disgust win out and he flees the hotel, stepping over penitents dutifully waiting on the stairs.

Pietro finds his true role in the village at last when the snow comes and the villagers gather at Matalena’s inn. Urged by them to tell stories, he opens his breviary and “in his own way” tells them “the story of the martyrdom of which the breviary speaks.” In his story, “mysterious travelers” arriving from abroad are the Christ-like martyrs against “a dictatorship with a deified leader.” Spina is telling them his story, and those of all the martyrs to the anti-Fascist cause. But these radical tales are cloaked in fable, and therefore comforting and digestible to the cafoni, who listen as they would to any bedtime story.

Towards the end of the book, Don Paolo and Cristina reconcile. It almost seems that he is at the point of confessing his identity to her. The reader almost believes they will go away together, maybe to someplace like Argentina or Brazil (where the Abruzzesi in Silone’s books are forever emigrating to, as my grandparents did in the late 1920s) and live happily ever after. Instead of writing about Cristina in his notebook, now he writes to her. In the midst of this, urgent word comes from the father of the informer Murica, and Don Paolo hastens back to Fossa on foot.

Murica has died in prison, tortured to death by the Fascists. In his pocket is a note that he has written: “Truth and brotherhood will prevail among men instead of lies and hatred. Labor will prevail instead of money.” After listening to the story of Murica’s last hours, Don Paolo says:

“If we live like him, it will be as if he were not dead…we must stay together and not be afraid.”

At the house of the dead man there is a kind of communion, where the mourners drink wine and eat bread. They speak of how it takes nine months to make bread and wine, when you count of the months the wheat needs to grow and the grapes to ripen; it is the same time it takes “to make a man.” This is Silone’s reconciliation of the spiritual and the secular, the passion of Christ mirrored by the sacrifice of a man. Murica could have betrayed Spina to the Fascists and saved his own skin. But he did not, and he died for it.

The Salter dust jacket for the hardcover version

Abruptly, at the Murica house, Pietro is told that someone else has betrayed him, and he must flee. He escapes into the snow on a colt, clinging to the horse’s mane, but must stop in Pietrasecca. And there, idiotically enough – it is a novel, after all, with some plotty stuff – instead of revealing his identity to Cristina, he writes it in his infernal notebook and hands it to her. She races off. And there is no last moment with Pietro – he asks a cafone to bring the colt back to old Murica, and then he quietly slips out of the novel, seen only “dashing along like a madman” towards the mountains.

Cristina reads his confession. Distraught,
she packs up a bundle of clothes and food and follows Spina into the snow-covered mountains – a blizzard is coming and she wants to save his life. She decides to take the shortcut “up a steep slope about three hundred feet in height”:

Even in summer tackling it was an enterprise best left to foolhardy boys and goats, and in winter it was almost impossible. Cristina jumped the stream without hesitation and started climbing it. She used hands and feet, clinging to branches, bushes, and boulders that protruded from the snow. Several times she stumbled and fell badly with her face in the snow and slipped back…

She forges on, impossibly; her hands are torn and bleeding. She finally reaches the top of the slope, and sees that the snow is intact: no one could have passed that way. She goes off in a new direction as the sun goes down and the blizzard starts to blow in. She trudges on, the snow up to her waist, and reaches a hollow – and sees no one. And eventually, she collapses in the snow. She calls out his name, “his new name, his real name, ‘Pietro, Pietro.’” But the only sound that answers her is the wolves:

The howl of prey. The summons to other wolves scattered around the mountain. The invitation to the feast.

And the last we see of Cristina, she kneels, closes her eyes, and makes the sign of the cross.

To call this a pessimistic ending (!) is, I guess, to miss the point. Like Fontamara, it is a call to action during desperate times. But it is also bigger, and sadder, than that. It comes from an inconsolable worldview. If being a creative person means keeping the childhood version of yourself alive, for Silone (born Secondino Tranquilli in 1900) that meant keeping pain and trauma alive. In a sense, it seems to me, time stopped for him on January 13, 1915, when his native Pescina was leveled by an earthquake. His mother was killed in the earthquake, and his little brother Romolo, who was the lone surviving sibling of six – all of the others having died in infancy – was trapped in the rubble beside the dead mother for five days, pulled out with “his mouth full of dust and dirt after desperately calling for help."

[It is of course impossible not to think of the suffering of the people in Haiti as I write these words.]

Romolo would follow the path of his older brother, embracing socialist principles, having a police file opened on him, and being branded as a “subversive.” And eventually he would be jailed by the Fascists, and tortured to death in prison at the age of twenty-eight.

It is hard to imagine that Silone ever got over the guilt of being a survivor. Writer Iris Origo, a friend of Silone’s, said of him: “He carried within him wounds which he knew to be unhealable.” So much of his fiction seems to be an offering made towards his own absolution. His writings represent the desire to move towards grace, a desire that seems to have been, in real life, ultimately unattainable.


  1. You would be interested in the first English bio of Silone:
    "Bitter Spring: A Life of Ignazio Silone" (FSG, 2009) which received favorable reviews in the NY Times, the LA Times, and the WSJ.
    Finalist for a National Book Critics Circle award.

  2. You read some wonderful books, congratulations! You were lucky to have them all available.